Bigotry is back in Europe’s East

Most Western European news reports on the outcome of the Polish elections qualified president-elect Lech Kaczy?ski as a “conservative”, and the new prime minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz of the same Law and Justice party (PiS) as a “technocrat”. My impression is that they are worse, and that the new leadership of Poland – which has equally many votes in the Council of Ministers as Spain and almost as many as France, Germany, the UK and Italy – is at worst a bunch of conspiring bigots, and at best another provincialist pain in the European ass. This is not a good thing – be it for Poland or for Europe (at least if you consider modernisation of Europe’s economy along Blairite lines as an improvement compared to the current situation). It is not a good thing either for those who would like to see Eastern Europe shed the remnants of its totalitarian past today rather than tomorrow: The PiS election victory sets a bad example in a region where bigotry and blame tactics often serve as red herrings allowing societies to avoid confronting itself with some painful truths and memories.

The only positive note directly after the elections was that defeated candidate Tusk’s party Civic Platform (PO) would become the voice of relative reason in the government coalition. By now we know that PO has dropped out of the talks, as a result of which the new government will depend on several smaller even-further-right parties for its support. Among these maverick Andrzej Lepper, who has become deputy Speaker of the Sejm. This is not going well…

So how bad is it? First the bigotry. In his former job as Mayor of Warsaw, Kaczy?ski banned Polish gay and lesbian organisations from holding an Equality March, claiming that it would “promote the homosexual lifestyle” . Shortly after his appointment as the new Prime Minister of Poland, Marcinkiewicz told Newsweek homosexuality was contagious and had to be kept at bay by state intervention: “If a person tries to contaminate others with his homosexuality, the state should intervene against such an attack on liberty”. Note the orwellian ‘oppression is liberty’ claim, and how uncannily it resembles Mr Buttiglione’s (remember him?).

Accordingly, the moral corruption of impressionable young minds has to be prevented by subjecting them to sufficient social discipline teaching early enough in life. A document called Law and Justice – Our Way on the PiS party website therefore rejects the liberal education programmes for which Polish schools are of course well known:

In addition a uniform instructional concept should be adopted, rejecting the compromised liberal pedagogic and instead teaching the students the basis of social discipline and responsibility and civic education.

There was more homosexual contamination during the presidential campaign, as the excellent beatroot blogger tells us:

The Kaczynsiki camp has also tried to play (somewhat ludicrously) to the far-right and reactionary gallery by raising the spectre of a ‘homosexual lobby’ in the EU, which is ‘infecting’ Polish society. With his appeals for a Poland ‘cleansed’ of these elements, and with a new civil service free of corrupt ex-communists, Kaczynski has occupied the moral high ground.

As with many paranoids, there is a grain of truth in this EU lobby allegation, in the sense that the election outcome has already prompted the European Commission’s spokesman to warn Poland to abide by article 6 of the Treaty of Nice. This Treaty article says that all member states must protect minority rights and not impose the death penalty, of which Mr Kaczy?ski is a proponent.

Which brings us to provincialism. Poland’s new president, one of whose main roles is to represent the country abroad, is not very good at foreign languages and has few foreign contacts. This is a problem that can be overcome. Worse however, from a European point of view, is that his European and economic policy views combine a tendency to populist protectionism with the attitude that Poland is in the EU in order to get as much out of it as it can.

In a 2002 interview on the PiS website, Kaczy?ski argues that Poland should levy import duties in order to pay for “the handicapped, science and culture” and “maternity” while reducing its budget deficit. Warsaw Station reports that during the election campaign, the Kaczy?ski camp promised new initiatives worth up to 12 000 – 14 000 million z?oty (3060 – 3570 million euro) to voters – all of it to be paid from unspecified administration cuts. The irony is, of course, that the only realistic hope for more government spending is not the Polish government, but the EU’s farming and regional development funds.

Poland - Presidential election results mapThe reason why his “fear and greed” tactics helped Kaczy?ski to win the elections becomes clear when you look at the map with the election results. What we see is an electoral divide just like the ones we saw in the last American elections and in the French referendum. Poland’s poor and rural East voted predominantly for the conservative and protectionist PiS candidate Kaczy?ski (blue) that promised financial support, whereas Warsaw and the more prosperous and optimistic West voted for the economically very (but not otherwise) liberal PO candidate Donald Tusk (orange). Note also the graph near the bottom of the page showing the relationship between voting behaviour and agglomeration size, and which is further proof of a very clear difference between rural and urban areas. Interesting too is that Poles living in North America and Italy (papal influence?) voted overwhelmingly for Kaczy?ski, whereas Poles in nearly all other countries of the world voted for Tusk.

What this shows is that the very real needs of an impoverished and insecure part of the population have been played upon by stirring up existing prejudices, scapegoating minorities and the evil abroad, and making false and unsustainable promises that, even if kept, neither make voters richer nor make them feel more secure. Yes, I know this is politics, but the degree in which it happened here is really sickening. It also matters, because the use of bigotry as a political means fits into a pattern we find elsewhere in the region as well.

A skinhead disarmed In an article he wrote for Radio Poland, the Beatroot describes what happened during the Equality March in Warsaw, which took place nonetheless in a somewhat modified form despite the Mayor’s fatwa. Judging by his description, there are many similarities with the Gay Pride in Tallinn this year, and with the Gay Pride that took place in Riga for the first time this year. In Tallinn, the skinheads had turned up only in small groups thanks to the pouring rain, and they had no chance to assemble thanks to the dispersed pattern of Tallinn’s mediaeval streets and the adequate way in which the Estonian police escorted the event. As a result, and despite a bomb alert that turned out to be false, everything went well in Tallinn. In Riga a few weeks earlier however, it had rained stones and eggs just like in Warsaw.

In Latvia as well as in Estonia, the counter-demonstrations had been provoked, or at least prompted, by church and political leaders, including Prime Minister Kalvitis of Latvia and an unholy alliance of conservative nationalists and Soviet-nostalgic communists (no doubt bien étonnés de se trouver ensemble). Even the ambassador of Russia meddled in, underlining – I think correctly – that “anti-human” marches like these would be impossible in Putinist Russia. The climate of hysteria these people created during the weeks preceding the Prides led to severe criticism from Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

The involvement of Russia in the Baltics is another sign of power-political motives underlying the homophobic smear campaigns. The Baltic states have large Russian minorities (from 8% in Lithuania up to 26% in Estonia and 40% in Latvia) that immigrated there during the soviet era. Since independence, successive governments in Latvia and Estonia have tried to underline the breach with the soviet past by emphasising their respective states’ national identity. This happened amongst others by first refusing citizenship to resident Russians at all, then (after EU pressure) only to those who did not pass an (Estonian/Latvian) language exam. Today, large shares of the Russian minorities in the Baltics still have no citizenship, and although many of them are doing well in socio-economic terms, quite a lot of others are not. Russia, which still has not come to terms with the loss of its empire in the west and has several border disputes running with its Baltic neighbours, uses every opportunity it gets to poke social unrest, just as conservative nationalists use it to play their own supporters’ discomfort with a fast changing society.

Bad as it is in itself, all this scapegoating by superior order gives a particularly bad taste in the mouth in view of the past and the way it is (not) dealt with. In some countries in Eastern Europe, gay groups are still not allowed to participate in commemorations of the holocaust, of which they are themselves victims. Tellingly, Lech Kaczy?ski defended his ban of the Equality March in Warsaw also by saying that is was “a joke” to hold the march on the same day as the unveiling of a monument to General Stefan Rowecki, a leader of Poland’s anti-Nazi underground army during World War II.

Another example is the (otherwise quite impressive) Genocide Museum in Vilnius, which is dedicated to the periods of Nazi and Soviet occupation and even has a temporary exhibition on what happened to the Armenians in the 1915-1917 era. When I visited it last summer I could not help noticing that its text-rich displays mentioned even the Jewish (let alone other) Lithuanian victims of the Nazis in only one little sentence. It seems tempting to attribute this silence to shame over the enthusiasm with which locals had helped to exterminate 90% of their Jewish countrymen, surprising even the Nazis. The museum also suggests that, in 46 years of Soviet occupation, the only Lithuanians occupying leading positions in the Communist Party had been a few deluded souls from deprived backgrounds, so it seems that my interpretation is not too far-fetched. Even today, anti-semitic and bigoted rants have become the trademark of major Lithuanian newspaper Respublika’s editoral comments, although the good thing is that it was fined by a court for doing so.

I found the Occupation Museum in Riga to be more nuanced than the Genocide Museum in Vilnius, because it not only recognised that ordinary Latvians had worked with the Nazis and the Soviets, but also tried to explain why they did so – at least as far as WWII was concerned. Most nuanced of all three Baltic museums dedicated to the 1918-1991 period – in the sense that it also clearly mentioned the fate of the Jewish population during WWII – was the Museum of Occupations of Estonia in Tallinn, whereas pre-WWII Estonia had the smallest pre-war Jewish population of all countries in the region and anti-semitism there was very low. None of the museums provided some perspective for the independent republics of the interbellum, for instance by comparing their (and Poland’s Second Republic’s) increasingly authoritarian character with contemporary trends going on elsewhere in Europe (most of all of course Germany).

If this is in any way indicative of the way national history is being written in the Baltics (and, by extension, Poland) – which seems to be the case given the (justifiably) prominent place of these museums on the list of national attractions – then providing a complete and balanced picture of the past seems to have been sacrificed to the higher goal of nation-building, by creating a myth of collective heroism and resistance to evil. I do understand why and how this happens – after all, it has been only 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how long has it taken Western Europeans to come to terms with only 5 years of Nazi occupation? But the problem is that a large part of the population does not fit the idealised image of the patriotic hero. In those fifty or more years, almost no one will have escaped the need to compromise. Many, perhaps even most, people will have someone in the family who made a carreer, or collaborated enthusiastically with either Nazis or Communists, or even participated in criminal acts of varying degrees of immorality up to the worst imaginable.

What I am saying is that the rants of people like Kaczy?ski, Marcinkiewicz, Lepper, and others against communists and gays are nothing new. They form a direct line with the authoritarian independent pre-war republics and with the communist regimes. The Soviets hated “deviance” of any kind, be it Jewish, gay, handicapped or dissident, because their mere existence spoiled the official myth of (socialist) perfection. Pre-war nationalists and their present ideological heirs hate it for the very same reason.

In a famous essay called The power of the powerless, Václav Havel described well how totalitarian values persist once they have established themselves in society:

Human beings are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way. Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but at the same time alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary masterplan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people’s own failure as individuals.

Havel was refering here to the communist regimes, which he calls “post-totalitarian” because they force people to stay in line not by using force like classic dictatorships, but by habit and social coercion. It works because its ideology and rituals provide certainty in times of uncertainty:

In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish.

Reading this today, it is as if he is describing the voters in Poland’s East and explaining why the conservative appeal to reactionary values seemed so attractive to them. An insecure society is very good at suppressing and persecuting what is different from the ordinary (René Girard might say: a society that is in a mimetic crisis will try to find a scapegoat in order to survive). But it is sad that it had to go like this, as given the influence Havel’s essay has had on the Solidarno?? movement, you would expect Poland’s current political and religious leaders had internalised its message a little more than they give evidence of.

Now, all of this is not to say that appearances cannot be deceptive. In fact, sources point out that a lot is changing for the good both in the Baltics and in Poland, and that the rhetoric of political and religious leaders has to be contrasted with the pragmatism (albeit often on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis) of many ordinary people, especially in the larger cities. What matters is, however, that the pragmatists have not been elected in government. And although the definition of deviance may have been narrowed significantly since the fall of communism, bureaucrats, lawmakers, employers and anyone else in a position of (however little) power still have the means to suppress, punish and discourage what is defined as deviance today.

If the choice is between finding a scapegoat and adapting to change, the moral choice is of course for the latter. Luckily, that is in fact what Poland and the Baltics, and most other states in Eastern Europe are in fact doing – even more effectively, admirably and profoundly so than the countries in Western, “old” Europe. Donald Rumsfeld was right pointing that out. The “creative economy” and the novel ideas that symbolise new Europe and its hope for the future are growing explosively. But they do so not in Poland’s rural and reactionary East where people voted for Kaczy?ski, but in its cities and West where they voted Tusk.

It may be so that a society does not strictly need to treat its minorities well in order to have economic growth. But treating your minorities badly is a sign of a state of mind that is not willing to embrace change and new ideas. As such, the way a society treats its minorities is a litmus test for how fit it is for the future.

13 Responses to “Bigotry is back in Europe’s East”

  1. js Says:

    hey, work on that headline a bit: “Bigotry is *back* in Europe’s East” — funny i wasn’t aware that it had gone anywhere in the first place…nice rhetorical use, but sorry, didn’t work for those who actually live in poland…

    i guess you should pay more attention to what is happening in paris lately…how is that litmus test going?…or that aborion is illegal in ireland (what about human rights for women?)…point your blog at any country and you’re gonna find some dirt — so why beat up on poland…they just can’t get a break here…first politicians and war mongers carve up the country and now angry bloggers carving up its electorate…

  2. Jan Nowak Says:

    Your article was certainly amusing, but misses the fundamental fact that Poland is a deeply religious nation and its people overwhelmingly adhere to the position taken by the Catholic Church. What ever you may label that position on gays, is irrelevant, as long as the Vatican holds this position so shall the general public in Poland. Debating religious believes is a waste of time.

    With respect to doing something about i.e. EU pressure or sanctions would be a joke and likely to result in the society closing ranks against the foreign threat and making an unpleasant situation turn much worse.

    Liberal thinkers in the west often measure progress by next weeks newspaper headlines, whereas Poles consider things in terms a their thousand year plus history. To attempt to coerce this society from the outside would represent folly. The Soviet/Russians and Germans killed seven million people and physically destroyed 80% of the country, even that resulted in a failure to extinguish or alter this culture.

    Demonizing the newly elected president and taking a confrontational position with his government is pointless, like it or not he represents the social attitudes of the overwhelming majority of the people. The more moderate PO vary mainly on their approach to economic reform not social issues.

    If for any reason it appeared this government was forced out of office by external pressure, the resulting reaction is likely to be far more hard-line Christian Nationalist than the current government.

    The answer lies in time, social progress that took over sixty years to attain in old Europe and will not be achieved in Poland in a mere sixteen years.

  3. beatroot Says:

    Jan says: ‘Poland is a deeply religious nation and its people overwhelmingly adhere to the position taken by the Catholic Church.’

    But is it not the case that Poles are very selective about what they adhere to? For instance, Poles are split 50 – 50 on issues like abortion.

    Isn’t it more the case that thee are two Polands – the religious one and the secular? At the moment, the religious, eastern part of the country has the upper hand. And then it will swing back gain the other way, liike it always does.

  4. Bengt O. Says:

    Jan Nowak’s comment is strikingly similar to what we always hear about China. It has been this way for 1000 years and it will take 1000 years to change. But in reality China has changed much faster than that as a result of external influences. So might Poland. It is important that voices such as the one reflected in the posting should be heard – preferably in Polish.

  5. PierreM Says:

    I particularly enjoyed this comment:

    “Worse however, from a European point of view, is that his European and economic policy views combine a tendency to populist protectionism with the attitude that Poland is in the EU in order to get as much out of it as it can.”

    You mean, like France has done since the beginning of the EU?

    And why do you associate Poles with the Lithuanians’ enthusiastic participation in the Holocaust? The Poles had almost nothing to do with the mass slaughter of the Holocaust. Jedwabne and a few other towns are the exceptions that prove the general rule. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles were sent to the camps: how many Lithuanians were sent to Auschwitz?

    If you want to find a far more disgusting case of willing participation in the Holocaust, you might check France again.

    And regarding the claims of ‘bigotry’: it is the teaching of the Catholic Church that the practice of homosexuality is agrave sin and an objective moral disorder. Is the EU planning n supressing the Church as well?

    Maybe the Poles have simply exchanged one Soviet Union for a ‘kinder, gentler’ version.

  6. Khrystene Says:

    An excellent article. Thanks. But BIGOTRY never left the building!

    As for Poles being ‘deeply’ religious, I’d like to suggest that they’re for the most part, like any other ‘religious’ nation, religious when it suits them… like when women want equality, or gays or others, they drag out the old religious rhetoric. ‘

    A nation does NOT need to be a fanatical religious state to be a nation. The state itself needs to function aside from religious belief.

    Poles are very happy to attack religious fundamentalism in Islamic nations, just like their mates in the US do, however when it comes to their own fundamentalism, it’s ‘justified’ as being ‘correct’.

    There’s nothing gentle about the state of confusion in Poland at the moment. The one good thing, is that there are more and more of us willing to stand up for what we believe in, and for the rights of others.

    This weekend we marched again for equality.

    Every time we march, we have to watch our backs… the right is everywhere.

    But I’m optimistic. And determined!

  7. James Says:

    For my thoughts on what’s afoot in the new EU member states and what can be done about it, pls visit my Times Online blog. Hope you like it.

  8. Monika Says:

    Hey, I’m from Poland and I can’t understand why you posted a pic of a skinhead kissing a girl, here are many of them and they can love, too. We are human we have a life like you guys, the only difference between you and me it is me to be a WN.

  9. eulogist Says:

    Monika, I definitely agree with you on skinheads in general, but this particular skinhead was yelling at and sticking his right arm up to the Gay Pride that was passing by. Not much love there. Plus it was not him kissing the (lesbian) girl but vice versa.

    What does WN mean?

  10. Melchi Says:

    This is an interesting article & I like to stay informed on what happens around the world. I’m only very disappointed by the generalisation of the word ‘skinhead’. Everytime the word is used by the media these days it directly implies skinhead=fascist.

    I’m a (trojan or SHARP) skinhead & am far from right-winged. SHARP means Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice.

    We love reggae(mostly from the 60s), ska, oi!, r’n’b/soul (from the 60s)… etc. What you portray as again WN skinhead that we call boneheads due to their lack of knowledge concerning this subculture. This subculture has started due to Jamaican rudeboys living in England which influenced the young working class there.

    Isn’t better to mention the WN as right-winged skinheads instead of generalising. I think that the media is responsable for missing the truth in reporting such mistakes & at the same time putting many anti-racist skinheads in danger as a result!

    BTW: Poland also has alot of anti-racist skins Monika. We call them traditional skinheads.

  11. Monika Says:

    To eulogist:

    WN means White Nationalist.

  12. Monika Says:

    Ok… now, I read what is wrote about the picture, I can’t believe there are a skinhead who kiss a leasbian and he’s cute. :-)

  13. News from Estonia Says:

    Apparently something is changing cause on my site I published an article today about Estonia legalizing gay marriage..

Leave a Reply